“I believe the children are our future.”
What has become a cliche-born-of-pop-ballad is really giving me a lot of hope these days. I recently marked five years serving at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and completed my first year as a full-time faculty member at MBTS and its undergrad arm, Spurgeon College. (My first four years I worked in the communications department as director of content strategy.) I did not come to the school thinking or expecting to teach, so desiring this transition was as surprising to me as anybody else. But over the last several years serving the seminary community and my church as director of our Pastoral Training Center, the Lord’s been kind to give me a vision for theological education and gospel mentorship. I’ve also grown in my conviction about “passing the baton” of gospel-centrality to the next generation.
The students I’m encountering by and large are not like my generation at their age. Their theological instincts and missional impulses are stronger, more honed. In short, I’ve been hugely encouraged by the young men and women training to be the future of church leadership. Here are three key things I’ve noticed in them:
The young people I get to serve in ministerial training have a much more eager reach into both church history and theological foundations than most of my peers did at their age. I know I’m only speaking anecdotally here, but it’s something I’ve noticed in meeting with young people around in the world in my public ministry travels, as well. Their sense of church history does not begin with Billy Graham. And while many in my generation 10 to 15 years ago were renewing some interest in the Reformers and the Puritans, the students I engage with are digging into the early church fathers and more global resources from which to accumulate insights. Theologically, they are more curious and astute, not afraid of doctrine distracting from practical living or evangelistic efforts. They treat the Bible as more of a fountain of heavenly wisdom and a living and active power than as a sourcebook for good quotes. While my generation and much of the one that came before seemed most interested in business practices and creative entrepreneurship, I am noticing among the younger generation of ministry students in general a desire to connect their ministry not to cultural relevance but to the enduring relevancy of God’s revelation. Their roots go deeper, which will make them stronger.
More Ecclesiological Affections
I’ve been saying this for a while, but while my generation and the generation I learned ministry from seemed to be more inclined to see church as commercial enterprise, artistic vision, personal ambition, and the like, the emerging generation has a more comprehensive and biblical vision for the local church (and for the church universal). I notice less envy or veiled competition between ministry peers. I see a greater interest in an actual missional Christianity than those who used to use the phrase missional constantly as a tribal marker. I see more evangelistic concern among younger people than I did in my peers (or, frankly, myself) at their age.
Now, my viewpoint may be skewed in that I serve an institution that has made existing “For The Church” not just our slogan but our actual, on-the-ground raison d’être, so we tend to attract the kind of students attracted to that kind of focus. But it’s not just Midwestern students; it’s many, many young people who have grown tired of the franchising and the maintenance of institutional fish tanks. Their ecclesiology is more detailed and more biblical. (I suspect we can partly thank the growing influence of 9Marks Ministries among successive generations for this.) But they don’t just love building something; they love the church. They think about the church. They think in terms of the church. The church is not some incidental means to disseminating an individualistic vision or some spiritual content.
The result is a more holistic approach to evangelism, which includes re-evangelizing Christians and the church through a renewed emphasis on making disciples (instead of just converts), and a more zealous commitment to world and home missions (instead of programming the evangelism for in-house performances, which de-incentivizes believers to live on mission in their everyday lives). In short, the emerging generation thinks more like churchmen than the previous ones have.
Greater Sense of Gospel-Centrality
The younger generation is now the first to (at least partly) come of age during the ongoing gospel recovery movement. As such, they are less interested in intramural squabbles about Calvinism vs. Arminianism, emergent vs. traditional, and so on. The danger at this stage in the gospel-centered whatchamacalit is that we assume the gospel we have recovered. (Because, as D. A. Carson as warned us, the next stage after assuming the gospel is losing it.) But instead, many of the young people I am blessed to teach and disciple are diligently troubleshooting how to press the gospel into every corner of the room—of their hearts and of their churches. I notice in sample sermons from my students and my residents, for instance, how pervasive good news is in their preaching. The gospel doesn’t just show up at the end, where Jesus must make his programmatic cameo appearance. Rather, these students are making connections from the text as it lies to the Christ who reigns throughout the course of their teaching and preaching. They are also interested in distinguishing the gospel from its implications while still maintaining there are implications!
They still need to be taught the ABCs of gospel-centered ministry, of course, but even to those for whom it seems most foreign, there is a greater inclination to lean in. I notice a refreshment in their response to working through the implications of the gospel for all of life and ministry, rather than a resistance.
For many in my generation, we have had to work out our gospel-centrality with fear and trembling. Many of us began before there was a movement to speak of, no coalitions or togethernesses for it. We’ve seen of course much fracturing taking place within a lot of these tribes, the balkanization of the movement, so to speak. But the younger generation is learning to test all things and cling to the good. And they are waiting in the wings.
A few years ago I wrote a book called The Prodigal Church, which was my attempt at a winsome and irenic critique of the attractional church (the subtitle is “A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo”). My desire was that it would fall into the hands of many lead pastors and church planters and cause them to at least consider my questions and rationale. That didn’t really happen, as far as I can tell. But I did hear —and still do—from many young men in youth pastor, discipleship pastor, and associate pastor-type roles, those in second and third chairs. They tell me the paradigm of gospel-centrality (not just from me, of course) has given them a vocabulary they only vaguely knew. It helps them put a finger on the thing in their current context that has up to that point only seemed “off.” These leaders are learning what they can from their current contexts, but they are biding their time until they reach the first chair. They give me hope. Because the future of the ministry is theirs.
For these reasons and more, I’ve loved teaching Bible college and seminary students. With all the weirdness going on in the world and in the church, I think our future is nevertheless bright. I have enjoyed being pastored by a younger generation of men for this reason. And I am optimistic about the decades ahead—for that reason, and for the more important one, which is that Christ is King and he has promised to build his church.